Six months ago, on January 25, a man who called himself Abu Sayyaf al-Ansari, reportedly from Tripoli, pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
"We pledge allegiance to the prince of the believers, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi... and we ask him to guide us past the obstacles, and make us your spearhead in crushing your enemy, and not a single man among us will hold back in helping you," said Ansari in a translated report.
Prior to Ansari’s declaration, ISIS in Lebanon had claimed responsibility for a bombing in Arsal and another in Beirut’s Hezbollah-aligned southern suburbs.
According to analysts, these were small cells based either in rural northern Lebanon, the eastern Beqaa, or the Palestinian camps, where law enforcement remains very difficult. But in the past few weeks, after ISIS’ surge in Iraq and its related success in securing popular support from Sunni tribes and former Baathist groups in northern Iraq, fears are growing that the Sunni-Shiite sectarian struggle might catch fire in Lebanon too.
Recent developments in Iraq and Syria should be worrisome: ISIS' goals of creating an Islamic state across the Sunni Arab world and erasing the borders drawn by colonial powers have energized jihadist factions across the region and even the world.
In a video released last week, a group of jihadist fighters from several countries showed their support for ISIS. “We have participated in battles in Al-Sham and we will go to Iraq in a few days, and we’ll come back. And we’ll go to Jordan and Lebanon with no problem,” Abou Mouthana al-Yemeni, a fighter raised in Britain, says in a video addressed to Baghdadi, to whom he referred as his sheikh. The video was later removed by YouTube.
But the threat does not come from outside Lebanon’s borders, according to a security source in Ain al-Helweh Palestinian refugee camp. The source told NOW that he has been receiving information during recent months about jihadist factions mobilizing in several areas of Lebanon, including Palestinian refugee camps.
“The fanatic groups will try to take control over a big geographical area in Akkar and the Palestinian camps,” he said. “I have information from Akkar about ISIS and [Jabhat al-]Nusra training camps. They’re trying to move toward Tripoli and from there their plan is to get closer to Beirut. There are also sleeper cells in different Lebanese regions, such as Beirut, the Beqaa Valley, and North Lebanon.” The source told NOW that he knows it could all end if there was a political agreement at the regional level, but he says that would be impossible at this moment.
“[Jihadists] are not mobilizing only inside the [Palestinian] camps: it is happening across Lebanon, especially after the developments in Iraq and Syria – the Qalamoun second battle. Fanatic Muslims and takfiris are spreading very fast. What is happening in Iraq and Qalamoun shows that the situation will soon be very dangerous in the region, including Lebanon. It will all be a jihad battlefield,” the source said.
Many residents in majority-Sunni Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city, feel a sense of solidarity with the Iraqi Sunnis. Mohammad Khalaf is convinced that the region is experiencing one big revolution. “This is not ISIS: this is a popular revolution with a religious impact. It happened because of all the injustice Iraqi people endured for the past few years,” he told NOW. Khalaf, a former social worker, has recently become the leader of a brigade that frequently engages in battle with Alawite fighters in the rival neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen. He wears the black flag of jihad as a bandana on his head – in order to scare the enemy. But he is not a jihadist, he says, and nor are his neighbors.
“ISIS would not get support from people in Tripoli. Tripoli’s people are with the Syrian and Iraqi revolutions. Nobody supports the takfiri ideology,” Khalaf insisted. “In this region, people don’t support fanatics and terrorists.”
Salafism is not a new phenomenon in Lebanon. But the Syrian conflict, the influx of Syrian refugees, and Hezbollah’s involvement in the fighting on the side of the Syrian government have strengthened the Salafist movement and radicalized parts of the Sunni community. Several Salafist religious leaders gained greater popularity in the past few years, many taking advantage of the lack of a strong Sunni moderate voice. Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, the most prominent of these until his movement ended in a bloodbath a year ago, quickly became popular because of his anti-Iranian and anti-Hezbollah rhetoric. Assir and many of his followers are currently in hiding, and many analysts see them pledging allegiance to ISIS if given the opportunity.
“People who supported Ahmad al-Assir would probably support ISIS as well,” An Nahar commentator Mohammad Abi Samra told NOW. “ISIS is a network that promotes Salafist ideas more than it is an ideology or an organization. It will definitely try to recruit people in Lebanon, but it’s difficult to say who would support its ideology,” he added. Although some of these recruits could be Syrian refugees, “One thing is sure,” he concluded: “Syrian people have unbearable lives wherever ISIS took control.”
Myra Abdallah contributed reporting and translation.